by Beth Mayer, LICSW
First, parents should know that no eating disorder is “caused” by any single thing. Eating disorders are complex, and genetics, temperament, and environment all play a role, as do frequently co-existing conditions such as anxiety, depression, and OCD. Thus, no parent has the power to single-handedly create or prevent an eating disorder.
There are many parents who are afraid of being vilified and blamed for their child’s eating disorder. Parents are not to blame for their child’s eating disorder, but there is a lot of room for growth and education for everyone involved. When parents approach their child’s eating disorder from that place, rather than from a place of defensiveness, they are much more effective at helping their child heal.
Parents work hard to be good parents – and we have to keep working at it for life
I tell parents that of course, it’s not their fault that their child has an eating disorder, and now, what can you do from here? It’s so helpful when parents are able to bring curiosity rather than defensiveness to the situation.
As parents, we often try to educate our children, but we must remember that we need ongoing education ourselves. I’m almost 60, and I’m still learning and growing and changing. There is no magic time in our lives when we know everything, and we can always learn new things.
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All parents feel we have worked hard to be good parents. And we have. All of us. And if your child gets an eating disorder and you can see ways in which you can accept that some of your choices lacked education, and if you have to learn new things and adjust your behavior moving forward, that doesn’t mean you are to blame.
We live in a fatphobic society
We live in a fatphobic society. So, of course, many parents are terrified if their child gains weight. Sometimes parents try to help their kids lose weight to help them live a better life. I get that. I understand.
Societal education tells us that dieting is the solution to being overweight, so it makes sense when parents think their kids should diet. Even though it is a well-known and scientifically accepted fact, very few people know that diets fail 95% of the time and that the most common side effect of dieting is weight gain.
My feeling around eating disorders is that the parental influence is often an accidental side effect of trying to protect their children. It’s just that you didn’t understand everything yet. Your intent to protect your child is to be applauded, but now it’s time for a new approach.
Parents (and kids) can’t expect parental perfection
As parents, we can’t expect perfection from ourselves, and kids can be taught to accept their parents’ imperfections, too. Parents and their kids need to understand that parents are humans – they make mistakes, and they have weaknesses. The fact for everyone is: you got what you got; now what are you going to do about it?
As parents, it’s very hard to know what’s right. We have to be really generous with parents. There is no perfect way to raise your children, especially around food and body.
Talking about hunger and satiety
I’d like people to talk more about hunger and satiety, and to feed themselves accordingly. I think that too often parents think about how to control their kids’ weight instead of accepting hunger and satiety. In our office, because we are so aware of these topics, we all eat at random times. There is no “right time” to eat here, because each of our bodies asks for something different, sometimes every day.
Of course, our kids are in a rigid school system, and they have very little opportunity to feed themselves this way. I think most kids don’t eat enough at school. It’s a very stressful place, and there’s very little time to eat. As a result, many kids come home from school and their bodies need another meal. When the body is hungry, we should feed it. There’s no “right time” to be eating.
Next, you can address issues such as whether a child is using food to self-soothe. If so, what skills can we teach our kids to help with their stress? They spend all day under pressure at school then they come home and feel the pressure to keep up with their homework. There’s very little time to recalibrate and relax, which the human body needs.
As parents, we can help our kids find ways to nourish their bodies and offload their stress in non-food ways. We can ask, what moves you, what excites you? We can’t change the school schedule, but can accommodate hunger and help kids manage their stress.
About recovery from an eating disorder
I warn families that many of them will gain weight. Not just the child in recovery, but the parents and siblings, too. This is a natural response to regulating eating patterns after the disorder. This is hard because the message in society is that if you’re gaining weight, something’s wrong. But learning to respect the body’s hunger and satiety, and recovering from an eating disorder, is a process, not an event. The body and mind both need time to adjust.
I tell my clients there are things they can change, but it’s unreasonable to expect dramatic changes all at once. Just because we express a desire for change doesn’t always mean we’re capable of changing. I believe in being very gentle with the process of change, and being OK with not having a map. Change is slow, it’s hard, and it can be painful.
I have found that most people who recover from an eating disorder end up healthier in body and mind than the average person. But I also tell them that they are recovering into a very disturbed world. That’s the reality. But with education and self-compassion, parents can help our children, and ourselves, navigate our current society with hope for a future where all people can feel good in their bodies.
Beth Mayer, LICSW, has been working in the eating disorders field for 34 years. She has been the Executive Director of MEDA for 15 years. She is nationally recognized for her clinical work with eating disorders and has spoken at conferences around the country. In addition to eating disorders, Beth specializes in treating adolescents and families. Beth has served as an adjunct professor at Simmons College, Boston University, Boston College, Lesley University and Salem State College, supervising MSW and LMHC graduate student interns. She is currently the co-chair of the NEDA network and serves on many local and national committees. Beth holds a B.S. in Clinical Psychology from Quinnipiac University and a Master of Social Work Degree from Boston College.